None Of Our Business – “ACCORDING TO ME” TRIBUNE COLUMN

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When you hear the phrase “the business of the House” as it pertains to Parliament, that business refers to our business – the people’s business. When you and I vote on Election Day, that vote sends men and women to Parliament to conduct our business through the passage of legislation.

When a government determines its legislative agenda, the principal focus is supposed to be you – the Bahamian people and what is best for the country at large.

The Opposition is also supposed to be primarily focused on the country above all else; being the aggressive guardians of our interests and studiously holding the government accountable on its decisions and actions.

If this dual dynamic was in play right now in our Parliament, it would be a home run for the Bahamian people – but it’s not. For the last 14 months in general and the last several months in particular, what we have been forced to endure in Parliament has hardly been about the people’s best interests.

The current circus playing out in Parliament over the government’s Stem Cell Bill is none of our business; meaning it is not about the business and interests of the Bahamian people. It is not even about fulfilling campaign promises or legislative goals communicated to us, as I will show you further in this column.

This protracted drama in Parliament that has hijacked our business is about a mixture of three things: political patronage, personal agenda and perfect ineptitude.

Political Patronage: The Prime Minister

A political party elected to office in The Bahamas formally communicates its legislative agenda via two traditional means – its charter/manifesto prior to an election and then its Speech from the Throne, read by the Governor General during the opening of a new session of Parliament.

The charter/manifesto tells the country what that party plans to do during its full term in office, and the Speech from the Throne tells the country the specific Bills the government will bring to Parliament during a given session.

Now here is the question to ask yourself: what exactly is the legislative agenda for healthcare that the PLP administration announced to the Bahamian people?

The Prime Minister, in response to events surrounding the Stem Cell Bill debate, recently told the media that notwithstanding the drama in Parliament, his government would proceed with “its legislative agenda”.

But wait – a Bill for Stem Cell Therapy and Research is not listed in either the PLP’s Charter for Governance or especially its Speech from the Throne as a healthcare plan. So what caused this Bill to suddenly become critical in this House session’s legislative agenda when the government’s Speech from the Throne for this session makes no mention of it whatsoever?

The Prime Minister’s notorious bouts of verbal vomit exposed him to objective criticism on this issue when he announced at a recent event that an expat political financier told him he would bring in foreigners to spearhead stem cell work in The Bahamas if the PLP government passed a Stem Cell Bill.

Had the Prime Minister not said that, he may have been able to make a better case for how a Bill his government never told the country it would introduce, managed to leap-frog in Parliament past all the government’s actual pledges for the healthcare system in the country – pledges that are supposed to be about our business as Bahamians.

In its Throne Speech, the government announced only two healthcare items for its first House Session: to “take steps to advance our nation’s preparations for the introduction of National Health Insurance” and to “facilitate the Public Hospitals Authority’s acquisition of new cancer-screening technology to ensure that Bahamian women have access to state-of-the-art mammogram machines” in Nassau and Freeport.

But almost as soon as they came to office, they announced that National Health Insurance would not be financially feasible right away. The government meantime has not told us about work toward its pledge to expand public cancer screening facilities for Bahamians.

And then there are the pledges under the Healthcare category of the PLP’s Charter for Governance, pages 165-166. Nineteen (19) pledges on healthcare were made to Bahamians and after over a year in Parliament, the substantive of those have not been touched yet -but a healthcare system Bill to apparently satisfy a single financier has become the agenda before our business. What about the immediate healthcare needs for Bahamians?

Why did this Bill leap-frog Charter pledges that could have easily commenced over the last 14 months, like upgrading facilities in public clinics and extending their hours, upgrading and expanding Sandilands, increasing pay for registered nurses, establishing an “appropriate medical air transport system” and computerizing the public healthcare system?

Infamously, their Charter pledge to “create a state of the art hospital on the island of Grand Bahama as part of the Ministry of Health” was broken within weeks of coming to office, with the government announcing it had cancelled plans already in progress to complete a major expansion of the Rand Memorial Hospital that Bahamians there have been wanting for decades.

Against this backdrop, the government had the nerve to recently tell Grand Bahama to have no fear, their financier was coming there to see where he could put a stem cell facility. So Bahamians on that island were stripped of their much-needed public hospital expansion, but they’re supposed to celebrate plans for a single person’s healthcare business to take precedence over theirs.

Incidentally, Mr. Christie shouldn’t try to suggest that his “legislative agenda” is about benefitting Bahamians, because on the same island of Grand Bahama there is currently a stem cell facility – Okyanos – approved under the previous government that Mr. Christie’s government is preventing from going forward.

The principals of this facility claim that they plan to provide over 100 jobs for Grand Bahamians once the government grants final sign-offs to its project that has already received both government and Grand Bahama Port Authority approval.

So if much-needed jobs for Grand Bahamians are possible via Okyanos, why has the government withheld final approvals for over a year, while suddenly announcing that its financier is seeking to open a similar facility on the very same island? Has their financier been given a promise of exclusivity in the stem cell business?

The ability of this Bill to get precedence over all other healthcare pledges for Bahamians is none of our business – meaning this is not about us, but about political patronage. You voted for a government to manage your business, but so far the request of someone who cannot even vote appears to have made it to the front of your own line on healthcare.

Personal Agenda: The Opposition Leader

This issue regressed from the dubious to the trite when the Leader of the Opposition seemingly decided that the critical focus thereof should switch to democratic violations of which he is not a victim.

Notably, the public has been misled on this matter and media reporting in some instances has fueled confusion. The facts are that the Opposition Leader was not “gagged” by the Speaker and there is a regulatory regime already in place to approve and oversee all medical projects in the country including stem cell projects, which is how Dr. Minnis while as Health Minister and his government, was able to approve the Okyanos facility in Freeport.

The country’s current medical laws and its bodies including the National Ethics Committee – an arm of the Office of the Chief Medical Officer (the statutory head of the healthcare system in The Bahamas) – have been providing oversight and regulation for medical facilities for years.

This oversight over the years has included both the approval and rejection of medical projects and medical work in The Bahamas. Professionals in the system recommended additional legislation on stem cell work to enhance the regulatory structure already in place, but such legislation is not currently required for approvals to be granted.

So what Dr. Minnis told Parliament about no regulatory regime being in place on this issue was not factual. Whether he trusts the regime of which he played a key role as Minister is another matter, but it does exist. Had he explained this, it would have put Okyanos and the critical issues of this debate in a proper context.

What the critical focus of this matter should be, is whether the government will abide by existing laws or even its own Stem Cell Bill, when dealing with a financier who has interests in this area. No matter what law is passed, a compromised government can choose to break the law to remove red tape for a financier, and that is what a studious Opposition must look out for.

As for the current Parliament “showdown”, this probably would have gone another way had Dr. Minnis not chosen to “take a stand” with absolutely nothing in his hand. No one gagged him from tabling evidence of claims he made against the Prime Minister – he never brought the evidence to begin with.

Contrary to being gagged, he was repeatedly asked to table whatever evidence he did have – he refused. Who does that? After Dr. Minnis refused to obey the Speaker’s order to either table proof or withdraw comments he made about Mr. Christie and a financier, the Speaker ordered his and Mr. Christie’s subsequent comments expunged from the record of the House.

Dr. Minnis was then ordered not to intervene again in that particular sitting  – it was not an indefinite order as some are being misled to believe. The Speaker himself (who I will deal with next) repeatedly told the media that his order to Minnis was only for that sitting and not intended to carry over into future sittings.

At the next sitting when Minnis was asked to take his seat and Parliament was later suspended, he wasn’t ordered to stop talking because he is gagged and not allowed to speak anymore, it was because it was not his turn to speak and he attempted to make a speech while another Member already had the floor – a clear violation of House rules. The FNM when in government sometimes suspended sittings for the same reason – MPs with agendas deciding they will get up and repeatedly break House rules to disrupt a sitting.

Two Members cannot have the floor at the same time, something Dr. Minnis surely knows. He got up certainly knowing that as per House rules, he would be asked to sit down – which would of course cause those already misled about this matter to believe he was being “gagged” yet again.

When the Opposition Leader first “took a stand”, he ought to have had in his hand what he later said was his proof – expat Peter Nygard’s sworn court affidavit containing comments about his being a political contributor to the PLP.

Since he failed to do so, when he did finally get a hold of the affidavit, he should have just gone ahead and released the proof to the public for all to see, if his stance is really all about the public’s best interest anyway.

But this stance, like that of the Prime Minister, is not about the people’s business. This one is about the Opposition Leader’s hackneyed agenda and whatever he believes he stands to gain by presenting himself as a false martyr.

Perfect Ineptitude: The House Speaker

For House Speaker Kendal Major I have three words of advice: read a book. And I’ll even provide the name of that book: Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice – the bible of parliamentary procedure in our system of government.

When something is ordered expunged from the record of the House, it means that insofar as that item is concerned, it essentially no longer exists. Therefore, the Speaker is showing himself to be completely inept by telling the media that the Opposition Leader still needs to either “substantiate or withdraw” what has already been expunged.

Either the Speaker does not understand his own ruling, or he is trying to keep this kindergarten drama going for other reasons. Either way, his ruling put an end to the matter as far as the expunged comments are concerned.

A Member cannot withdraw or substantiate what no longer exists. And if the Speaker plans to allow the Member to re-state the same expunged comments should he choose to now substantiate them, then what did the Speaker expunge the comments for at all?

Dr. Major meantime, told the media that asking Dr. Minnis to withdraw what doesn’t exist anymore is about honor and respect for the Chair. Really?

No Mr. Speaker, a sign of honor and respect you can pay to parliament and to the public is to learn your job, learn the import of your rulings and to govern House proceedings such that at some point before parliament is dissolved, something that comes close to the people’s business can potentially be accomplished.

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